- Storm under the Sun (Hongri fengbao)
A few days before sitting down to write this review, I received news of the August 18 passing of Shu Wu (1922–2009), noted writer, critic, and a major cultural figure of Mao’s China. Shu Wu, who was eighty-seven years old at his death, makes a cameo of sorts toward the end of Peng Xiaolian and S. Louisa Wei’s Storm under the Sun. It is, rather, an anticameo, as Shu’s voice is heard on speaker phone refusing to be interviewed for the film he is effectively now in. Shu Wu is an important key to understanding the events depicted because in a film imbued with compassion and a strong humanistic spirit, he is one of the few characters on whom the filmmakers project a degree of moral culpability.
In 1955, years before the Anti-Rightist Movement and more than a decade before the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong unleashed an unprecedented attack on a group of writers and intellectuals collectively known as the Hu Feng Counterrevolutionary Clique. The incident centered around Hu Feng (1902–1985), a literary critic, poet, translator, and founder of the Leftist periodicals July (Qiyue) and Hope (Xiwang), who had advocated a form of realism in art that was seen as a direct challenge to the directions laid out by Mao in his 1942 Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature, a series of talks that would effectively dictate all artistic production in China for the next several decades. The attack on Hu was not an isolated political purge but rather a massive national movement that led to ninety-two arrests (seventy-eight were eventually labeled members of the Hu Feng Clique), and more than twenty-one hundred others were implicated in the ensuing political witch hunt. Victims suffered imprisonment and long sentences to labor camps, and many were persecuted to death. Only after 1980 was the case officially reversed. The political maelstrom was first ignited by a May 13, 1955, article printed in the Peoples’ Daily titled “Some Information about the Anti-Communist Party Hu Feng Clique”— the author was Shu Wu (albeit also used as a political pawn in a larger ideological game in which the filmmakers seem to hint the real villains were Zhou Yang, literary theorist and vice director of the Department of Propaganda, and, of course, Mao himself).
Among those persecuted were some of the best and brightest of New China’s literary scene such as writer Lu Ling, poet and theoretician Ah Long, and literary critic Jia Zhifang. Many of these writers and critics were seen to be carrying on the spirit of Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature—Hu Feng was often considered his torchbearer. But though Mao praised Lu Xun, this group of Lu Xun’s Leftist protégées would suffer unimaginable trials. As the film progresses, we are introduced not only to victims such as Lu Ling, Ah Long, and Jia Zhifang but also to their families. In one sequence, the son of Ah Long fights back tears as he describes refusing to visit his dying father because he had already cut him off for political reasons. Codirector Peng Xiaolian was just two years old when her father, Peng Boshan, was arrested in 1955 as part of the crackdown on the Hu Feng Clique—his persecution would not [End Page 162] end until he was beaten to death by Red Guards in 1968. Storm under the Sun can be seen as Peng Xiaolian’s personal attempt to come to terms with the violent history that shattered her family and an attempt to understand her lost father. At the same time, the film also serves as a powerful testament to a page in modern Chinese history that has been long overlooked. There have, of course, been several Chinese-language books about the Hu Feng Clique, but never has this important page in modern Chinese intellectual history been given such thorough and loving treatment in film. Peng and Wei’s painstaking research...